The Somaliland Campaign and the Origins of British Counterinsurgency Airstrikes

By: James A. Fargher

HMS Ark Royal
HMS Ark Royal, the world’s first seaplane carrier. Source: Wikimedia

In response to an effective Islamist insurgency which threatened British interests in the Greater Middle East, the Cabinet sent a carrier-based strike force to commence an air campaign to disrupt and degrade the insurrection.[1] A radical Somali cleric, Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, had inspired the uprising, which threatened to spread and to radicalise British subjects elsewhere. With a newly-formed special forces unit[2] and an RAF squadron, codenamed ‘Z-Force,’ the Admiralty dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Gulf of Aden to conduct surgical strikes against the militants. Displaying many parallels with the present day, the ensuing campaign fought in northern Somalia in 1920 marked the first time that carrier-based airpower was used to fight in an asymmetric war.

The ship was HMS Ark Royal, the world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier,[3] and the bombers on board were Airco DH.9A single-engine biplanes which had recently served on the Western Front. The special forces unit was the Somaliland Camel Corps, which had been created in 1914, and now formed the ground component of the British government’s strategy to destroy the self-proclaimed Dervish State with simultaneous attacks from the land and from the air. Its plan pioneered the use of airpower in asymmetric warfare, and the RAF bombers were used successfully to locate enemy forces and to bombard them from the air. This innovation contributed to bringing a twenty-year insurgency to an end in three weeks, and persuaded the British government to use airpower in future imperial counterinsurgency campaigns, such as Iraq in 1921.

The Dervish Revolt

The uprising began in 1899, only twelve years after Britain had declared a protectorate over Somaliland, and would continue with varying degrees of intensity until 1920. Inspired by the Mahdist uprising in Sudan which had briefly established an Islamic empire in the 19th century before being crushed by Lord Kitchener at the Battle of Omdurman, Mohammed Abdullah Hassan gathered a band of followers and declared a jihad against the British government.[4] Nick-named the ‘Mad Mullah’ by the British, Hassan was a skilled leader, and his Dervish forces conducted raids largely unchecked throughout British Somaliland.[5] British infantry punitive expeditions struggled to find and to engage Dervish militants, who could withdraw to their fortified bases deep in the arid and rugged Somali interior. By 1914, the British administration had withdrawn to the protectorate’s capital in Berbera on the coast, leaving much of Somaliland in the hands of the insurgents.[6]

In the ensuing crisis of the Great War, the Dervish uprising in Somaliland was all but forgotten, and by the time the armistice was signed in 1918, the British public was in no mood for a protracted military campaign on the Empire’s fringes.[7] Nevertheless, the protectorate’s governor, Geoffrey Archer, was keen to use the armistice in Europe as an opportunity to finish the insurgency once and for all. In fact, his petition to the Colonial Office came at a propitious time for the infant Royal Air Force, which was then fighting for its existence as an independent service during a time of severe budget cuts and hostility from the Army and the Navy.[8] The Air Ministry presented a plan to the government to crush the insurgency from the air, and assured the Treasury that it could do so at a fraction of the cost of an Army-led operation.

The Campaign

After some wrangling with the War Office, in October 1919 the government agreed to the plan, and following initial preparations, HMS Ark Royal set sail from Malta to Berbera in December.[9] Royal Engineers had prepared an aerodrome in Berbera from which the bombers would operate, but Ark Royal stayed on in the harbour to act as a depot and repair ship for the aircraft. Archer, appointed to be Commander-in-Chief of the operation, devised a combined arms offensive, using the aircraft to locate and strafe Dervish formations whilst pre-positioned regular troops and friendly auxiliaries would interdict retreating forces and mop up any remaining resistance. Z-Force would also bomb the Dervish capital and forts to break enemy morale and to soften up positions before they were stormed by the Camel Corps’ mounted infantry.[10]  In this campaign, the aircraft would play a key role in locating enemy positions over a huge area of operations and in providing the 1920s equivalent of ‘shock and awe.’ The infantry, by contrast, were the means to establish control over the territory out of which Hassan and his forces operated.

On 19 January 1920, the bombers took off for their first attack mission. Although only one plane actually found the target, one of Hassan’s fortified compounds, it dropped eight 20 lbs bombs into the fort, wounding Hassan himself and killing one of his sisters and ten fighters.[11] Increasingly effective bombing missions continued regularly after this raid, hitting the fortified camps which Hassan had established across Somaliland and machine-gunning flocks of sheep and camels – the main source of food, transportation, and revenue for the group. In a concerted attack on the 27th, four planes bombarded one of the Dervishes’ main forts before it was stormed by waiting infantry.

These attacks forced Hassan to retreat south towards his fortress-capital of Taleh, deep in the Somali hinterland and close to the frontier with Italian Somaliland. Z-Force was able to identify the Dervish line of retreat, and on 4 February Taleh was bombed. Heavy bombs landed on the main gate and an incendiary bomb set the huts clustered around the outer walls ablaze.[12] Once the Camel Corps had advanced through the desert, the British launched a combined aerial-ground attack on Taleh on 9 February, capturing the city and large herds of camels, killing large numbers of Dervish militants.

The victory at Taleh drove Hassan into the Ogaden desert in Ethiopia, where he died several months later. The bombers returned to Ark Royal, and the Dervish insurgency collapsed. The use of aircraft was critical for the success of this campaign, as it allowed the British to locate and destroy Hassan’s forces and to cut off their access to revenue in what had proven to be a difficult environment.[13]

The significance of this campaign is that it represents the first time that carrier-based airpower was used in fighting a counterinsurgency operation. Moreover, it was launched from the world’s first aircraft carrier and it was the RAF’s first mission as an independent branch of the Armed Forces after the First World War. During a time of constrained military budgets, Sir Hugh Trenchard, Chief of the Air Staff, effectively demonstrated that the RAF could be used as an imperial police force to patrol the huge, unguarded hinterlands of the Empire such as north-west India and territories in the Middle East.[14] This victory in Somaliland would preserve the RAF’s independence, and airpower go on to become a fixture in Britain’s counterinsurgency campaigns.



James A. Fargher is a doctoral candidate in the Laughton Naval History Unit in the Department of War Studies, specialising in British naval and Imperial history.





[1] David E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), 39.

[2] ‘News in Brief,’ Times, 12 Aug. 1913: 8, The Times Digital Archive. Web.

[3] Norman Polmar, Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events, vol. I: 1909-1945 (Herndon: Potomac Books, 2006), 15.

[4] Randal Gray, ‘Bombing the “Mad Mullah” – 1920,’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institute 125.4 (1980): 41.

[5] ‘Another Little War,’ Times, 17 Feb. 1920: 17, The Times Digital Archive. Web.

[6] Chaz Bowyer, RAF Operations 1918-38 (London: William Kimber, 1988), 56.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Killingray, ‘A Swift Agent of Government: Air Power in British Colonial Africa,’ Journal of African History, 25.4 (1984): 432.

[9] ‘Mullah’s Overthrow,’ Times, 19 Feb. 1920: 13. The Times Digital Archive. Web.

[10] Gray, ‘Bombing the “Mad Mullah” – 1920,’ 43.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 45.

[13] ‘Somaliland Operations,’ Times, 20 Feb. 1920: 13. The Times Digital Archive. Web.

[14] Michael Paris, ‘Air Power and Imperial Defence 1880-1919’, Journal of Contemporary History 24.2 (1989): 209.

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